Once, there was a wonderfully gifted baseball player whose arm was too good for cut-off men, whose legs were too good for base coaches, and whose appetite for hitting was too expansive for the strike zone.
The manager of that team saw this. The coaches saw this. They knew the game and their team would be better served when their ballplayer wasn't sailing throws, wasn't racing through stop signs, and swinging at pitches he could not possibly hit. (Even when he did.)
The manager, a pretty fair player in his day, was a quiet and intuitive sort. He knew his coaches were eager to do their jobs, one of which was to make the game easier for a wonderfully gifted baseball player who lunged for greatness and sometimes left himself open to humiliation.
So the manager summoned the coaches into his office. They arrived, sat down and looked at the manager, who nodded and spoke in a deep voice.
"Leave him alone," the manager said.
He dismissed his coaches. The whole thing lasted maybe 20 seconds, end to end. Three words' worth.
They left with the same message: Vladimir Guerrero would find his way.
The year was 1997. The team was the Montreal Expos. The manager was Felipe Alou. All of which came and went long before Yasiel Puig came to the Los Angeles Dodgers and began his nightly lunge for greatness.
"Felipe's message was, 'Hey look, your instincts are going to be to teach,'" said Jim Tracy, a coach on that staff. "'He's going to get thrown out at third base by 20 feet twice a week. He's going to miss some cutoff men. We're going to make all these kinds of mistakes. We will get to it. In the meantime, leave him alone, let him play, let his abilities come out.'"
Puig is not Guerrero, not exactly. They are built differently. Guerrero, as a player, was shy and humble. His flair was limited to a smile, so broad and white it lit up a ballpark. Like Puig, however, he chased brilliance and sometimes found recklessness, and believed no man could throw a ball past him, and no man would outrun his arm, and no man would ever throw him out. (The marriage of Guerrero's whimsy and Mike Scioscia's first-to-third mandate led to the fieriest of crashes).
Vlad's baseball was beautiful and electric and charming and occasionally clumsy, where Puig's is uniquely graceful, and comes with a nasty edge. A desperation.
So Don Mattingly stands where many – including Felipe Alou – have stood. He weighs the outs lost on the basepaths and the opposing runners who trot into scoring position against the value of a 22-year-old man whose 52 minor-league starts has translated into a .352 batting average, 12 home runs and a .979 OPS in 64 major-league starts. He measures the immediate needs of the club – what Puig provides and gives back – against the long-term development of Puig.
Puig was benched Tuesday, primarily because he'd had a miserable week at the plate. But the decision dovetailed coincidentally when Puig was about 30 minutes late for Tuesday night's game. (Puig and his driver, a team employee named Roman Barinas, were caught in a school zone, and then behind an accident site, and then in more traffic.)
He was back in the lineup and in right field Wednesday night. That's because he's one of their best eight, and because he has unusual skills that aren't yet fully developed, and because one day soon the game will slow down and his pulse with it. Unless they don't, and then you still live with all of the good – maybe great – stuff that boils within him.
"Patience," Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti said, "is a trait you have to have. It's far-reaching, involving the development of a player, as long as he continues to work on it. And he has. Because his skill set is undeniable.
"It's tough to dampen his spirit and his passion. You consider, 'What are you giving up in the meantime?'"
He wears a big-league uniform and stands in the middle of a big-league lineup, and there are coaches and teammates in his ear. He stands in a massive city, a massive media market and – unlike Guerrero, who was free to make his youthful mistakes in judgment away from the bright lights – is expected to be flawless. As a man. As a ballplayer. It won't go that way.
The Dodgers hardly ever lose anymore, and that's partly to do with Puig. Sometimes he leads that. Sometimes he floats along. Sometimes, granted, his decisions pull in the other direction. The games will get bigger. Puig, like the Dodgers' patience, will be tested.
"I don't think that's fair to lay on him," Colletti said. "As long as he continues to work at it, it'll be fine. It's an imperfect game."
Meanwhile, ol' Felipe might have had it right. Leave him alone.
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